[OT] evolution [was Re: An assessment of the Unicode standard]

Steven D'Aprano steven at REMOVE.THIS.cybersource.com.au
Wed Sep 2 11:41:07 CEST 2009

This thread has intrigued me enough to bite the bullet and look up "r"'s 
posts. Oh my! They say a little learning is a dangerous thing, and this 
is a great example -- the only think bigger than r's ignorance and 
naivety on these topics is his confidence that he alone understands The 
Truth. Oh well, we were all kiddies like that once, so absolutely sure of 
ourselves on the basis of the most shallow paddling around on the shore 
of the sea of knowledge.

I will limit myself to commenting on only one thing. (A good thing too, 
because this is long enough as it is.)

On Tue, 01 Sep 2009 12:39:43 -0700, r wrote, quoting Steve (no relation 
<st... at lonetwin.net>:

>> This might come as a bit of shock for you, but evolution awards those
>> who are capable of adapting to complexity rather then those who expect
>> things to be uniform. You, dear friend, and those who yearn for
>> uniformity are the ones on the path to extinction.
> No evolution awards those that benefit evolution. You make it seem as
> evolution is some loving mother hen, quite the contrary! Evolution is
> selfish, greedy, and sometimes evil. And it will endure all of us...
> remember the old cliche "Nice guys finish last"?

This is Not Even Wrong. Evolution isn't a *thing*, it is a *process*. 
Nothing exists to "benefit evolution", that's like saying that horses 
have long legs to "benefit running" or people have lungs to "benefit 
breathing". Horses have long legs so *they* can run, which is beneficial 
to *them* (but not earthworms, oak trees, eagles or sharks) because it 
enables them, indirectly, to survive long enough to produce offspring 
which are more likely to survive than they otherwise would be. Horses 
aren't the mechanism for running to make more running. Running is one of 
the ways horses survive long enough to make more horses.

"R" is utterly confused if he thinks species live or die according to 
because they're benefiting evolution. Species live or die according to 
whether or not they reproduce, not due to services rendered to a process. 
Suggesting that species exist for the benefit of evolution is backwards 
-- it is like saying that we have computers and light bulbs and 
televisions and DVD players so that electricity can run through wires. Or 
that we build cars for the benefit of combustion.

(This sort of nonsense, anthropomorphizing the process of evolution, 
seems to be unique to those on the right-wing of politics. Go figure.)

Steve (the other Steve) is right -- species which are incapable of 
dealing with the complexity and dynamism of the world are doomed to 
extinction. Biologists have a word for stasis: "dead". The most vigorous, 
lively ecosystems are those that are complex, like rain forests (what 
used to be called "jungles" when I was a lad), coral reefs and mangroves. 
Messy, complicated, complex ecosystems are successful because they are 
resilient to damage -- a plague comes along and even if it kills off 
every individual of one species of fruit, there are a thousand different 
species unharmed.

The sort of monoculture which "r" sings the praises of are fragile and 
brittle. Look at the Cavendish banana, nearly extinct because a disease 
is wiping the plants out, and there's not enough genetic variability in 
it to survive. (Fortunately there are dozens of varieties of bananas, so 
when the Cavendish becomes extinct, we'll still have bananas.)

Or the Irish Potato Famine: millions of Irish dead from famine because 
90% of their food intake came from a *single* source, potatoes, which in 
turn came from not just a single variety but just a handful of closely 
related individuals.

(Well, also because the English were brutish thugs during the famine too, 
but that's just politics.)

As for the idea "nice guys finish last", that's a ridiculous over-
simplification. Vampire bats share their food with other vampire bats who 
otherwise would be hungry. Remoras stick to sharks, who carry them around 
for years without eating them. There's those little birds which climb 
into the mouths of crocodiles to clean their teeth while the crocodile 
sits patiently with it's mouth wide open. Wolves and wild dogs and hyenas 
hunt cooperatively. Baboons and chimpanzees form alliances. Penguins 
huddle together through the freezing months of darkness, and although the 
winds are so cold that the penguins on the outside would freeze to death, 
few of them do, because they all take their share of time in the centre. 
Monkeys cry out warnings when they see a leopard or a hawk, even though 
it puts them personally at risk. Meercats post sentries, who expose 
themselves to danger to protect the rest of the colony.

And the most successful mammal on the planet, more successful than any 
other large animal, is also the most cooperative, least selfish species 
around. It is so unselfish, so cooperative, that individuals will rush 
into burning buildings to save complete strangers, and that cooperation 
has let the species colonize the entire planet and even send a few 
individuals, risking life and limb, to the Moon.


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